Why cats are the way they are

I’ve blogged about dogs.  But I also like cats.  They are cool, graceful little killing machines.  I also like what cat-haters don’t:  their independence.  Did you know that cats, unlike nearly every other domesticated animal,  cannot be intentionally bred?   Did you know that cats are the most popular pet in the world, with three-times as many cats as dogs?

British zoologist John Bradshaw, the author of The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat,  has a new book out:   Cat Sense.  After the jump is  an excerpt from that book.  Read it all at the link, but I have quoted a passage that shows how cats sometimes do, in fact, show affection to their human owners.  Sort of.

From John Bradshaw,  Dogs we understand; cats are mysterious, even though they are the most popular pet – The Washington Post:

Cats are the world’s most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by as many as three to one. This popularity is undoubtedly helped by the fact that cats are simultaneously affectionate and self-reliant: They need virtually no training; they groom themselves; they can be left alone without pining for their owners, but most nonetheless greet us affectionately when we get home.

In a word, they are convenient.

Even so, cats remain aloof and inscrutable. Dogs tend to be open, honest and biddable. Cats, on the other hand, demand we accept them on their terms but never quite reveal what those terms might be. .  . .

In contrast to almost every other domestic animal, cats retain remarkable control over their own lives. Most go where they please and when they please and, crucially, choose their own mates. Unlike dogs, only a small minority of cats has ever been intentionally bred by people. No one has bred cats to guard houses, herd livestock or assist hunters.

Cats can be very affectionate, but they are choosy. This stems from their evolutionary past: Wildcats are largely solitary and regard most other cats as rivals. Domestic cats’ default position on other cats remains one of suspicion, even fear. . . .

Cats are not born attached to people. They are born with an inclination to trust people only during a brief period when they are tiny.

Studies of dogs in the 1950s established the notion of a “primary socialization period,” when puppies are especially sensitive to learning how to interact with people. For dogs, this is between 7 and 14 weeks of age. The concept also applies to cats, but it starts earlier. A kitten that is handled regularly between 4 and 8 weeks generally develops a powerful attraction to people. One that does not meet a human until 10 weeks or later is likely to fear people for the rest of its life.

Do cats exposed early enough to humans have an emotional attachment to their people, as dogs do? We know that they have the capacity to feel affection for other cats, and so it is probable that their attachment to their people is an emotional one.

Most owners would say that their cat displays contentment by purring. Purring clearly does occur when a cat is contented, but a purring cat also may just be hungry, or mildly anxious. Some continue to purr even when their body language indicates they are angry. Occasionally, cats have also been heard purring when they were in distress or even during the moments before death.

Purring, then, does not necessarily reveal a cat’s emotional state. Instead, it seems to be what behavioral ecologists refer to as a manipulative signal, conveying a general request: “Please settle down next to me.”

However, other signals, may be more genuine displays of affection. Relationships between adult cats seem to be sustained mainly through mutual licking and rubbing. Many cats lick their owners regularly, but scientists have not yet investigated whether this represents affection. We know that cats that do not like each other never groom each other.

Cat owners also engage in a tactile ritual with their pets when they stroke them. Most owners stroke their cats simply because it gives them pleasure and because the cat also seems to enjoy it. But stroking may also have symbolic meaning for the cat. Most prefer to be stroked on their heads, the area toward which cats direct their grooming.

Many cats do not simply accept stroking passively; they invite people to stroke them by jumping on their laps or rolling over. They also indicate where they wish to be stroked by offering that part of their body or shifting position. By accepting stroking, cats are engaging in a social ritual that is reinforcing the bond with their owner.

While touch is very important, the upright tail is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us. A cat approaching its owner with a raised tail will often rub on its owner’s legs. The form that the rub takes seems to vary from cat to cat: Some rub just with the side of their head, others rub down their flank, some make contact with their tail. Many walk past without making any contact or perform their rubs on an object nearby.

Because many cats rub most intensely when they are about to be fed, they have been accused of showing nothing more than cupboard love. However, few cats confine their rubbing to mealtimes, and when two cats rub, they exchange no additional reward. So an exchange of rubs is a declaration of affection.

Another way cats attract our attention, of course, is by meowing. The meow is part of the cat’s natural repertoire, but they rarely use it to communicate with each other. Feral cats are generally rather silent. While all cats are apparently born knowing how to meow, each has to learn how to use this most effectively.

Once cats have learned that their owners respond to meows, many develop a range of sounds that, by trial and error, they find are effective in specific circumstances. In this way, many cats and their owners gradually develop an individual “language” that they both understand but that is not shared by other cats or owners.

So cats demonstrate great flexibility in how they communicate with us, which rather contradicts their reputation for aloofness. We could consider some of this behavior manipulative, but only to the extent that two friends negotiate the details of their relationship. The underlying emotion on both sides is undoubtedly affection.


About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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